President Maithripala Sirisena is always seen clad in the Sinhalese sarong and a long white shirt. A new addition to his wardrobe is a saffron jacket, which his supporters liken to the sleeveless jacket popularised by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, however, loves to dress in suave business suits while courting the global power elite. Their language of choice differs, too. Ranil prefers English, while Sirisena is known for sticking to Sinhalese. Such differences apart, the two leaders are trying to steer Sri Lanka to a stable political landscape, after ousting Mahinda Rajapaksa in the presidential elections in January.
The balancing game between Wickremesinghe and Sirisena is bringing in new protagonists. Sandra Pereira, secretary to Wickremesinghe, is fast emerging as a powerful bureaucrat in her own right. Crucial communication to and from the office of the prime minister is handled by Pereira.
The drama during the presidential transition has not yet been played out completely. It is widely believed that sensing an adverse verdict, Rajapaksa contemplated imposing a temporary dictatorship, but was dissuaded by some advisers from doing so. But the suspected coup has quickly snowballed into a political weapon. For instance, General Sarath Fonseka, the former army chief, who lost to Rajapaksa in the 2010 presidential elections, has asked the government to remove the commanders of the three wings of the Sri Lankan armed forces as he feels their allegiance to the democratically-elected government is suspect. Fonseka says the commanders, who plotted to put him behind bars during the Rajapaksa era, should not be allowed to continue.
“Rajapaksa sacked a number of high office holders to establish his grip on power. Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake was rehabilitated by Sirisena after the charges against her were proved to be bogus…. I should be rehabilitated similarly,” says Fonseka. His demands have put the civil-military relations under stress.
Another major headache for the new government could come from former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, who along with Wickremesinghe created the anti-Rajapaksa coalition. She has kept her distance from the government so far, but there is a lingering suspicion that she will engineer a surprise for Wickremesinghe and demand her pound of political flesh. “Chandrika says that she is not interested in Sri Lankan politics and that her son has no political plans. But that does not cut ice with Sri Lankans, because we know Chandrika is a master tactician and might contribute to the thriller that Sri Lanka is fast becoming,” says analyst Kalyanand Gotage.
Chandrika may intervene to create a greater balance in the present presidential-cum-prime ministerial system. “Chandrika and Ranil have a lot in common as both are cosmopolitan in their outlook, but Chandrika does not have a great deal in common with Sirisena. Both Sirisena and Ranil, perhaps, are equally worried of Chandrika,” says the editor of a major Sri Lankan newspaper. He says it is just a matter of time before Chandrika throws her hat into the ring in order to oversee the implementation of the 100-day programme promised by the government.
The holier-than-thou politics of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, an alliance partner, which believes that the anti-corruption campaign of the Sirisena government is mere optics, could prove to be another challenge. The JVP says Wickremesinghe has failed to act on his promise to scrap the Colombo Port City project, which is planned and funded by China. Last week, Wickremesinghe said “scrapping the project is not that easy”, after meeting Chinese special envoy Liu Jian Chauo. This flip flop may also have given a new lease of life to Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party.
The biggest test of the government, however, will be on the issue of devolution of power to the Sri Lankan Tamils. The government has made a tentative beginning by sending deputy defence minister Ruwan Wijewardene to the northern territories and the eastern city of Trincomalee to assess the ground situation. Bringing down the extent of the military-held territory in the north features in the 100-day programme. But the Sri Lankan military reportedly does not agree with the plan. “The Sri Lankan military perceives the land under its control as territory it conquered from the Tamil Tigers… and they also perceive some leaders to be soft on the Tamil issue,” says Gotage. The government is not finding it easy to strike a balance between the military’s interests and its own desire to let the Tamils breathe free.
Such critical issues may give Rajapaksa an opportunity to stage a comeback. Less than a month after the presidential elections, Wickremesinghe has announced that he would prefer to hold elections to the parliament soon. This has galvanised Rajapaksa’s supporters who wish to project him as their prime ministerial candidate against Wickremesinghe.
The PM’s announcement has unleashed the winds of instability in Colombo with many saying that the presidential elections, instead of creating stability, may have opened door for a long spell of instability. Political commentator Chandni Pereira says the parliamentary election might prompt Rajapaksa to return either as a leader of the SLFP or he might launch a new party to clear the stains of corruption and to take on Wickremesinghe. “Rajapaksa might come back as prime minister to Sirisena. After all, both basically belong to the same SLFP. Ranil is currently facing a tough time as he does not have the numbers in the parliament. So this confusing situation will continue for some more time and I do not see Sri Lanka getting a stable government before summer,” she says.
Interestingly, Sirisena’s challenge to Rajapaksa in the presidential elections did not mean his total break from the SLFP. At least a section of the party continues to claim him as its chairman and suggests that an April election might lead the party to occupy both the presidential and prime ministerial chairs, in case Rajapaksa manages to defeat Wickremesinghe.
The evolving political situation in Sri Lanka has raised grave questions over the country’s ability to deliver as a balancing and facilitating power in the Indian Ocean, especially in view of its long violent history. The situation on the ground is not as calm as it appears to be. Rajapaksa might make some major announcements regarding his future plans, even as Sirisena gets ready to travel to India for his first foreign visit as president.